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Bridging and Boundaries: A Reflection

Updated: Apr 11

Bridging Divides. Fostering civic dialogue. Building common ground.

 

The words on the screen gave me pause. They were hopeful words, words of power and change, words I had never seen in any of the many, many generic job applications I'd filled out in the past few months. I liked the way they felt in my thoughts, the way they seemed to tug gently on a potential for a future I couldn't yet name, but knew I wanted.


I uploaded my resume and began answering the narrative questions to apply for Move for America's Fellowship, but a small part of me was uncertain. To do bridging work, one must be open, must listen on an individual, human level. What did that mean for Move for America? Would I be required to espouse actions and worldviews I believe are fundamentally wrong? More troubling for me personally, what did this mean in practical terms? What would, and would not, be allowed to happen in this spirit of openness and exploration? Could openness further marginalize people?


Looking back at that moment now, I know my worries were unfounded--knew it two minutes into my interview when I got to sit down with the people involved and hear their perspectives, in fact. But almost six months into my Fellowship experience, with all I've learned about inclusive leadership and the work we do as an organization every day, I suddenly realized a few weeks ago that I could not tell you exactly how I knew this to be true. So I set out to turn this knowledge into something concrete, something I could hold and that others could hold, too, because I'm certain I'm not the only one asking these sorts of questions. In my search for answers, I gathered the perspectives of my wonderful team, including my own, and turned them over in my head for a while. This article is the result of that process.


Bridge building is sometimes a nebulous work, and while neither these nor any other words will ever be able to serve as a complete and specific map to its inner workings--souls and situations are too wonderfully complicated for that to be possible--I have attempted here to lay out some basic definitions of the concepts involved and the specific ways Move for America chooses to operate within them. May they be helpful, clarifying, and perhaps, as they have been for me to discover and write, reassuring to you.


The Basics: Bridge Building & Finding Common Ground

 

These are words you'll see a lot if you've spent any time on our website, social media, newsletter or Fellowship application: bridge building, common ground. But what exactly do they mean?


Distilled into its simplest form, to find common ground is to find a subject, situation, or value about which two or more people agree. It's a fundamental first step in a lot of our work, because quite often in this polarized world, people think those with an opposing view from them are completely and utterly different, separate and other. It becomes a powerful force to show people they share more than they might think. It's possible to pause there, to merely acknowledge where we are united and leave it at that, but for our work, we take it one step further into bridging.


Common ground is all about finding similarities. But to build bridges, we must also acknowledge and accept differences. Then we must work with those differences to truly understand others.In a space that respects differences and finds common ground, we can truly make progress toward any shared goals. Incorporating other opinions offers us new and distinct lenses which often nuance our responses and expand our personal worldview.


This process is a reciprocal one. Without both sides attempting to hear, understand, and honor the differences, it can stall. This is why our first step of finding common ground is so important. It establishes respect and connection, without which bridging would be nearly impossible. If bridging were to be attempted in a vacuum without any common groundwork, the differences that do exist would likely be tangled with assumptions and stereotypes, yielding unproductive and hurtful conversations that utterly fail to further any goals, commonly held or otherwise.


Though reciprocity is essential, we don’t build bridges to simply destroy them. Sometimes we build a bridge and have to wait patiently for someone to walk over it or meet us halfway.

  

Common ground is about how we're the same. Bridging divides is about how we're the same but also different, and the value in those differences, in conversations that intentionally and reciprocally span across a divide. You can find common ground without bridging divides, but you cannot bridge divides without finding common ground.


Maintaining the Space: Safeguarding Conversations and Their Participants


To build a bridge, we must find level footing. But power imbalances are all around us. Often, individuals and whole groups of people are exiled from power through silencing and lack of invitation into the conversations that prompt change. This is not a tradition that we at Move for America wish to uphold. We've talked a lot about the importance of openness, empathy, holding differences and similarities, honoring individuals and their varied viewpoints. How do we also keep the spaces we foster safe and inclusive?


The line we draw is this: All viewpoints are welcome. However, all actions are not. Some actions are strictly prohibited in our spaces, including personal attacks, name-calling, slurs, stereotyping, and deadnaming. People who engage in these or related types of behavior will be asked to leave.


Outside of these strict boundaries, we recognize that we all have individual boundaries, and yours will always be welcomed along with the rest of your perspective. People can cross boundaries or offend us without knowing or intending to do so, and we encourage participants to name it when this happens. When someone names a discomfort or offense, we stop to listen and, where possible, repair. If someone repeatedly invalidates or fails to listen and repair, we will address it to maintain a respectful space.


That said, we recognize that “respectful dialogue” looks and sounds different to different people. In our spaces, we encourage you to show up as you are. You may choose to express emotions or keep them to yourself. You may maintain a steady tone or change your volume. You may gesture actively or remain still. However, verbal attacks or yelling at someone never fall within the lines of respect, and so these will not be tolerated. 


We never force people to enter into - or stay engaged in - a conversation. We are all entitled to decide for ourselves what topics we will engage in and what that engagement looks like. Some may be able to have different kinds of discussion than others, and there is value in realizing and respecting your own boundaries and comfort levels. To be in dialogue is not an obligation, and though leaving will likely affect those around you, we all get to choose when we stay and leave.

 

What about inside the Fellowship?


If you are curious about participating in the Fellowship, this part is for you. This is an immersive learning year, and we expect you to push yourself outside your comfort zone. However, there's a difference between being uncomfortable and being in jeopardy. We will not force you to remain in a position where you are or feel unsafe. You get to draw boundaries in ways that feel right to you. You will be actively involved in selecting the host organization you will work with, and will not be matched without your active consent. Yet while the choice of whether and how to engage will ultimately always be yours, the Fellowship is built around the concept of engaging across lines of difference, and the potential for discomfort is greater in these spaces. In other words, while we’re not expecting discomfort constantly, we do encourage engagements that will push you outside your comfort zone.


When things feel uncomfortable, staying in the moment can help us understand and care about others better. It's through this process that we can begin to see the world from perspectives other than our own, that we can begin to take in the great breadth of human experience, clearly, without assumption or misjudgment. We do not expect Fellows to agree with everyone they encounter, nor to change their beliefs in any way. But the skill of remaining engaged, even when it feels difficult, is crucial for breaking down barriers and facilitating genuine understanding. We hope all Fellows walk away having experienced the nuance that comes with allowing themselves to stay in challenging spaces, because it is here where some of the strongest bridges can be built. Our commitment to keeping spaces safe will provide the foundation, but it is this work of openness, even in the face of uncertainty, that will span gaps. 


If you’re still a little fuzzy on the line between discomfort and lack of safety, think of it as the difference between a beneficial stretch that prepares you for physical activity, and an injury like pulling a muscle. Our aim is to provide the former—a constructive, growth-oriented stretch, not a harmful strain. To that end, we offer training and foundational resources designed to equip you with the skills needed to navigate these challenging yet enriching conversations effectively. This ensures that while you may find yourself in situations that edge up against your thresholds, you are never without the support and tools necessary to engage safely and constructively. This will also help you decide when a conversation might be better left to someone else, held at a later date, etc. We will support you every step of the way!


Final Reflections


Fellow, participant, or ally of any shape, if you are involved in an event or program with us and you find that we are not living up to your expectations with regard to safeguarding the space, please get in contact. We want to make sure that everything we do values all voices, particularly marginalized ones, and your feedback is invaluable.


The vision we hold dear at Move for America is one of a society where dialogue strengthens the fabric of our communities, where differences are approached with curiosity and respect, and where individuals work together across differences that honor the diversity and plurality of our nation to strengthen our communities. It is with this hope that we dedicate ourselves to the work of making civic dialogue not just an aspiration but a reality in which every voice contributes to the collective well-being. We hope that, with this information, you feel encouraged to join us in this work.


As for me, I feel all my questions have been thoroughly answered, and hope this blog has been as educational for you to read as it has been for me to write. Here’s to many safe, productive conversations ahead, and many bridges built. 



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